Love in a time of pandemic
“I can’t believe we actually made it here,” I say, admiring the 9pm sunset in Belgrade.
Earlier this month, my long-distance Swedish boyfriend David and I signed a one-month lease for an apartment in the Serbian capital.
For the first time in my years of travel, I have packed regular-sized toiletries and cooking utensils. I have no idea how long I will be away.
We are thankful that we can both work remotely – I edit trailers for TV channels while David is an IT consultant.
On March 13, I left Stockholm after visiting him for three weeks. Our plan was for David to travel to Singapore a fortnight later.
But everything changed as the coronavirus pandemic raged across borders, which slammed shut one by one. Singapore’s border closed less than a week before his scheduled arrival.
We scrambled to find a country where we could ride out the virus, but we were too late. All we could do was wait. And that is what we did for four months, patiently hoping that Europe would open up by summer.
When the list of 14 countries that were allowed back in Europe was released on July 1, it did not include Singapore. Neither did it seem likely that Singapore would allow foreign travellers back in for a while, at least not for Swedish citizens.
We scrambled again, this time to find a third country where we could reunite. It turned out to be Serbia, our singular beacon of hope.
We turned to our fathers for advice. Both urged us to go, with my dad even telling me not to rush back. As terrified as he was of the virus (he has refused to trim his manic mane at the barber until there are three continuous days of zero infection in Singapore), he understood why I had to go.
The night before I told my parents, I was sleepless. David, however, knew of my parents’ epic romance so he was sure they would be supportive.
After my mother met my father when she was 15, they had to overcome K-drama-worthy obstacles which included my grandmother “kidnapping” my mother to Hong Kong for three years to forget my dad, who was then a 19-year-old gangster.
My late grandfather tried to dissuade my father first with money and then later, with threats and violence.
It was a huge relief when my parents were supportive, despite the prospect of me having to serve stay-home notice when I return and paying hospital fees if I am infected. My parents, David and I were ready for such repercussions.
This was not a holiday after all. It was a mission to be together.
It was a near miracle that we had finally found a feasible way to meet when almost the whole world was on pause mode. But this wormhole of possibility was closing by the minute.
On July 3, we firmed up our plans to meet in Belgrade five days later, booking the tickets first and deciding on the hotel only a day before my flight, which was hours before his.
July 8 was the only day our flights would match and we would meet in the airport after more than 120 days of being apart.
The day of my flight arrived and I woke up feeling frenzied. True enough, six hours before my flight, I received bad news. “Your flight has been cancelled,” the Qatar Airways agent announced over the phone.
My gut had been right. “M’am, do I book you for another flight two days later?” From the corner of my eye, I saw my strapped-up luggage marooned at my door.
I stalled for time with the agent, my mind racing through all the possibilities and my fingers shooting tiny bullets of panicked text to David, writing in caps at 100 words a minute.
We finally decided to go ahead with my rebooking. An hour later, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic announced a weekend curfew to contain the surging cases of infection.
I could not believe what I was hearing. Was my cancelled flight due to the escalation of events in Belgrade? Serbians stormed the Parliament, livid at the government’s flawed response to the pandemic which has just resulted in a second wave of infections, as we gauged our options that endless night.
Worst-case scenarios flashed by. What if the border closed during my transit in Doha? Or when I arrived in Serbia? There would be no flights out for me.
If David went ahead of me, he might be trapped there. Being in Serbia would limit the other places that would open up for us to meet in the near future, perhaps.
We had to decide on his way to the airport. Do we move his flight to match mine on Friday and see how it will go in Serbia? Or go now?
Twenty minutes before he reached the airport, we decided he should make a dash for it, emboldened by my dad’s approval when I asked for his opinion. “Go,” my dad said. “I don’t see what could happen. As long as you can leave the airport, you will figure everything out.”
My mother, who is the less adventurous parent of the two, might have been nervous, but she never showed it. Instead, both of them gave me wings.
David’s flight on a Wednesday, now two days before mine, went smoothly and he breezed past immigration. By the time it was my turn on Friday, everything felt more normal.
But to my horror, when I checked, I found that my flight was cancelled. Would it be insane to say that I was also half-expecting it? The world seemed adamant to keep us in place.
After half an hour on the helpline with Qatar, the airline agent finally found my revised booking and put in my new flights. It was my third electronic ticket in three days.
I reached the airport in record time, turning up more than three hours before the flight, just in case.
It was a grave moment, entering a hollow version of my favourite place in the world, Changi Airport. Despite the empty halls, checking in took longer than usual.
One of the staff dashed into a corner to confer with her colleagues. What now, universe? I interrupted their fervent discussion after a few minutes, asking if I could help.
“Oh no, we just saw a comment on your flight to Belgrade that it has been cancelled and we are checking to see who wrote it.”
Minutes felt like hours before they confirmed that the flight would proceed. “Are you sure?” I pleaded twice. I was collecting as much reassurance as I could.
All I wanted was to get on a plane, a simple act we have taken so much for granted until recently.
I headed for the departure gates where I found myself to be the only traveller. The usual bustling Terminal One was a ghost town, with one or two distant figures drifting in and out of the shadows. The halls were half-lit. Only a couple of restaurants, out of the usual 20, were open.
During my solemn 10-minute walk past shuttered shops, I thought about the dozens of times I had passed through the same halls that once buzzed with crowds permanently in good spirits, steps away from planes packed with promises of paradise. Now it was a cavern of stolen dreams.
That night, there were only three flights leaving Singapore, including mine. As I worked on my laptop waiting to board, I saw that I was now the only person, in the middle of a tunnel tapering into darkness.
The time for boarding arrived and I saw that I was not the only passenger after all. I would be sharing the flight with mostly migrant workers heading home.
On the flight, air crew decked in full body suits greeted us with serious eyes and muffled welcomes. Every passenger also had to put on both a mask and visor before boarding, which was provided by the airline. Is this how we will travel from now on?
I slipped on my socks and gloves, drifting into a fitful sleep under the protective shield of my visor, in a plane that was only half full.
After a seven-hour flight to Doha, I was shepherded into a bustling transit hall, where passengers decked in various levels of protection gear cut across one another’s silent paths.
A few wore full bodysuits, while a woman sat on the floor and engrossed herself in a furious flurry of texts. Did she also have a wrench thrown into her plans?
Less than two hours later, I got on my second flight that would take me to Belgrade. It was a full flight that would last a little more than five hours. The arrival was an uneventful 10-minute stroll through a brisk immigration queue, like David promised.
Since May 22, all foreign travellers to Serbia have been exempt from any testing or quarantine requirements. I emerged from the arrival hall and found David at the exit. We must have been the only foreigners.
Almost too nervous to hug, we dove into the closest taxi and headed straight to our accommodation. We made it.
Along the way, I saw a semblance of the life we had lost in the last few months in Singapore. People strolled in the streets without masks, friends gathered at outdoor restaurants and businesses operated as usual.
Serbia had imposed a tough lockdown on March 15 and resumed public transport only shortly after restrictions were lifted in early June.
We arrived just before the cusp of a second wave where there are more than 22,000 confirmed cases and 508 deaths in the nation of seven million.
July 22 marked the seventh month of our first encounter in Lebanon last December, where we were both travelling.
Bookended by fiery protests in both Beirut and Belgrade, with a global health crisis brewing in between, it has been a turbulent few months since our relationship started.
The other day, I read a CNN story about bi-national couples like us trying to reunite. On Facebook, too, a growing group called Couples Separated By Travel Bans has amassed more than 7,000 members who post desperate plans to meet.
Daily, online rallies hashtagged #loveisessential and #loveisnottourism stream like tears. These are couples ranging from engaged college students to seniors in their 70s.
Like them, this is not a holiday for us. We are just a couple, who happen to be from different countries, trying to start a life together.
- A visual storyteller who was happy not to travel again, Mandy Tay has reluctantly found herself once again on the road, this time for love.
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